I was lost in thought, fretting about my job, on what should have been a relaxing Easter afternoon at my in-laws’ tidy home. A comment from my father-in-law about something he read in his father’s diary from the early 1900s jerked me back into the after-brunch conversation.
“Wait, what? When he was a teenager? Wasn’t it written in Danish?
“He translated it after he retired. I’ll go get it.”
Craftsman-like handwriting filled 173 pages of the black leather-bound volume; photographs were pasted on 19 more. A few minutes before, my distraction with office problems had kept me from being as sociable as I wanted to be. Now curiosity made me tune out the conversation as I curled up with the diary on the couch.
Niels Nielsen first saw America shortly before his 22nd birthday in April 1912.
The sun was shining, yes, a beautiful day, and then the idea came that our lonesome trip would soon be over. At 7:30 we entered something like a fjord, where we for the first time saw land. At 9:00, we passed the Statue of Liberty. I am sure it gave everyone a peculiar and strange feeling as we passed. It makes you feel so small.
The young carpenter had been able to support himself in Denmark doing repair work. New construction was more fulfilling, but that work came only when a house burned down. America had plenty of new construction. Still, what Niels saw at Ellis Island gave him a moment’s pause:
An awful lot of people go through here. Just before us, about 1,000 Italians went through. We were about 800 Danes and it’s more coming, and it was only 1:30. I was wondering how long all these European people would be able to find room to make a living, and yet the Americans seem to want all they can get. The talk is, don’t stop in New York, but go west.
I was hooked. Immigrants’ courage has always amazed me. Only once had I traveled from my native land, only as far as Mexico, only for two days. My inability to do something as trivial as read the ingredients on a candy wrapper left me feeling incompetent, disconnected, and eager to return home. What gave millions of our ancestors the nerve to put a few dollars in their pockets and cross an ocean to a land where they knew neither the language nor the culture? Like Niels, many of them had no friends or relatives waiting at journey's end. They could not even phone home when they got lonely or scared.
I told my father-in-law that I wanted to make an electronic copy to preserve the diary. And, I though to myself, give myself something useful to do--I certainly was not creating anything of value at my current job.
I began a routine that would last for several weeks. I would come home from work, abrade my husband’s hapless ears with each day’s frustrations, and eat dinner. Then, I would sit down at the computer for two hours as I scanned, straightened, and touched up an electronic image of each page in Niels’ diary. The mindless work gave me time to think.
Should I retire in my fifties? We had been married only three years, but the combination of two households’ assets made retirement a realistic, if not luxurious, option for both of us. My husband jumped first and sold his share of a successful company to the other partners.
I was hesitating and did not know why. I was a mid-level manager in a large (dis)organization where decisions were so protracted it seemed like a victory when I won permission to correct a problem my team had discovered two years earlier. Outdated systems made every day a struggle to keep my small staff productive and satisfied, while the management team inched its way around a Möbius strip of planning activities. Every evenine, the few pages of Niels’ yellowed diary that I preserved felt like the most useful thing I had done all day.
The diary began in March 1908, when 18-year-old Niels finished his apprenticeship and set off on his bicycle to find a job. When it came time to enlist in the military on his twentieth birthday, as all Danish men were required to do, Niels had already completed his apprenticeship and two years of journeyman work. The military did not measure up to a carpenter’s standards.
We recruits went to a place where a lot of uniforms were hanging on a line. You were handed a uniform. It did not matter how it did fit you, you took it. Some did not do too well and it was a sorry looking gang. It was all used clothing, some fading and loss of color. If you did argue too much that things did not fit, the officer would say “Just take it. It fits you fine.” We soon found out that you don’t argue with them.
It all seemed so useless, and a waste of time. The small army Denmark could provide did not mean a thing in world affairs. If it ever should come to it that I would have to go to war, I am not sure if I could send a bullet to kill a man who most likely has parents and family just as I do.
Niels’ low opinion of the military was reciprocated. A poorly healed foot injury had left him with a limp that did not look good in the marching lines, and he was discharged within two weeks.
I could still hear the words for a long time after. The officer said “Number 117, Tenth Battalion, First Company: Sent home, unable to serve in any military capacity.” It sure did sound good. The boss was glad to see me when I got back to the shop, and I enjoyed being back at work making something useful instead of all that nonsense with the military.
As I electronically erased smudges and scratches from the images I scanned every evening, I came to realize why I was hanging on to my frustrating job. My husband could happily retire because he had accomplished something. He and his business partners had built a business that employed more than 30 people and provided life-saving medical equipment. His retirement was like hanging up his tools after a job well done. But I had not been able to build on or practice my best skills for the last ten years. I was hoping for a wisp of chance to create just one more thing of value, or my retirement would be like giving up.
Without a goal, it seems as if you just drift. It does seem foolish to work every day and at the end of the year have nothing but a few things you don’t really need. I was thinking to plan ahead for the distant future. I had the idea of going to America, both so as to learn some of the building methods and earn some money. The more I thought of it, the better it looked to me. I could not get away from the idea.”
After Niels came to America, he soon found his way to the Danish community in Racine, Wisconsin, where he got work assembling kitchen cabinets in a factory.
It was nice to work inside during the winter and whether it is raining or snowing. It was nice work all right, but nearly all the same kind. It finally got so I just did not like to go to work in the morning. I want to get into something where I can get interested in doing things. I had bought some tools—all I really need as a carpenter—and now I had joined the union I was all set.
With the help of his union business agent, Niels found work building a school.
We had finished the school building and it seems the Boss soon found out I was handy doing any kind of job, whether it’s building a stair, cabinet, or hang a door. He was getting plenty of work. You could see him and his horse and wagon all over town. The old man took me in his wagon to these small jobs so I was alone most of the time, he would first get the material in his wagon and we were on our way to a new job. I kind of like it, I never liked to do the same thing over and over again. It was already near Christmas and it looked like we may have work all winter, there were a lot of inside jobs on the big residences, and we had nice heat.
In one small area at work, I could get gratifying results. I could write. When I wrote the background memo for a meeting, no one arrived looking confused. Instead of "I didn't finish reading it," people would say, "I get it now."One of my reports found its way to a business-school professor who told my boss he had never read a clearer explanation of the complex topic.
But I wrote only sturdy, functional, and colorless management reports. No flair, no verve. I did not know whether I could write prose that would sing to a casual reader. My only talent was trapped in the office with me.
There were three carpenters and myself, all Danish, so we were all right when we were alone, but if there was one plumber or any other trade, I could just sit like a dummy. I was living, eating, and working with all Danish people, always talking Danish. I realized that it would never be any different, so it didn’t take me long to decide that I was going to school and maybe learn some English. Here is a school, they call Luther College. They have a class during the winter months, where they instruct in the English language for all newcomers. They had class two nights a week, and it was not long before I realized I was on the right track. I was so happy that I went to school to learn some English. Now I was thinking that I should move from Racine as there were too many Danes there.
A few days after I finished scanning the diary and making copies for Niels’ descendants, the mail brought a course catalog from the University of Wisconsin’s continuing education program. An online ‘creative nonfiction’ course offered me a chance to learn to use “all of the tools of the fiction writer to develop factual material.” I could learn, it said, to develop a unique voice, put color in my prose, and gain confidence in my writing. I signed up.
I never came close to meeting Niels; I married his grandson 28 years after he died. Yet after reading his diary, I finally understand. Soft pine is wrong for stair treads. Something harder, like maple, works best under foot. Walnut would be wasted on the inside of a drawer, but on the front shows its beauty to good advantage.
We waste our energy, our life, when we spend it doing something we’re not meant to do. The need to create something of value while doing something we love is a drive strong enough to pull a person across an ocean and through the work of learning a new language.
Niels left Denmark in 1912 to do the kind of carpentry he wanted to do. I took early retirement in 2011 and went to work on my writing.